Many readers will react to the above title by instantly recalling the signature song from the immensely popular Broadway musical and Hollywood movie, Fiddler on the Roof. ‘Tradition’ is the central theme of that story as the Russian peasant Tevye struggles to retain the traditions of his Jewish heritage while his world crumbles around him in the turbulent years just prior to the Russian revolution. Though Tevye doesn’t know why they have these customs, he does know that “… because of our traditions every one of us knows who we are and what God expects him to do.”
Though a rich heritage of tradition remains one of the notable cultural features that still characterizes modern Jewish life, you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the appeal of tradition as a ‘glue’ that binds each of us to a shared heritage, be that religious, ethnic, regional, national, or corporate. As Tevye recognized, tradition does help us to have a sense of identity and purpose. But we also recognize that when groups become ‘tradition bound’ they tend to become isolated and stagnant.
Many readers will recognize that “Traditionally Grounded” is the third of the four “pillars” of the NALC (North American Lutheran Church) of which this congregation is a member. So what does this mean? Do we promote a philosophy of “doing it the way we’ve always done it?” Do we resist fellowship with those who are different from us? Or is it only that we draw comfort from our traditions (like Tevye)?
It would be tempting to answer that question with an: “of course not!” but there is an important distinction that must be made between the traditions that are devised by humans, and the traditions which we attribute to God’s guidance. In the first instance, we are talking about “cultural traditions” such as church architecture, music, and worship practice which have evolved from Lutheranism’s European roots. Though members of our denomination may cherish such traditions to varying degrees, this is not the kind of ‘tradition’ that our ‘traditionally grounded’ pillar refers to. When these comfortable traditions make us less relatable to the world to which we are bearing witness, such things are expendable. For example, the form of the worship service will likely be decidedly different in an inner-city mission congregation than in a suburban or rural congregation. This kind of cultural tradition should always bow to the needs of the people who are being ministered to.
But at the other extreme there is what is often called “Apostolic Tradition.” This refers to the teachings and practices of the Apostles who were charged with carrying out Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’ to make disciples and baptize them (Matthew 28:16-20). For our guidance in carrying out this mission of Word and Sacrament, we turn to the witness of the Apostles who were personally instructed by Jesus and were uniquely guided by the Holy Spirit. This is why the testimony of these chosen disciples as found in the writings of the New Testament must always guide and constrain the practice of our faith. And we also recognize that there is value in studying the practices and understandings of the Church that was founded by the Apostles and has endured through the centuries. Though documents such as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are not themselves Holy Scripture, we embrace them as summaries of authentic Apostolic teaching. And though the Apostles themselves are long gone, we trust that the God who gave His Son has continued, and will continue, to give guidance to His Church.
However, the sad reality is that within the Christian churches of today, there are voices that are prepared to substitute modern ideas for the consistent witness of the Church, extending back to the Apostles. Though lip-service may be paid to Holy Scripture, it may be interpreted in novel ways that violate its traditional understanding. It is against such trendy revisionism that our church has established its pillar of being “traditionally grounded.” Though the world and the cultural orientation of its peoples are continually evolving, God’s Word endures as the solid reference point by we which we orient ourselves as we move out in mission.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it“ (2 Timothy 3:14)